How to Keep Your Child Safe in a Car

Buying and installing a car seat for your baby can feel a lot like outfitting your auto for a trip to the moon. There are latches to anchor, belts and buckles to secure, weight limits to uphold.

Before your patience goes straight into orbit, read this easy-to-follow guide to car seats. Learn which car seat you need and how to install it without driving yourself crazy.

Choosing the Right Car Seat

Why do you even need a child safety seat? Because it's an essential part of car safety. Child seats save lives.

If your baby is securely strapped in a car seat, his or her risk of dying in a car accident goes down by 71%, according to the CDC.

Yet buying and installing a car seat can seem overwhelming. When you wander down the aisles of your local baby supercenter, the sheer number and variety of car seats can make you dizzy.

Don't get intimidated. You don't have to buy the most expensive safety seat with all the bells and whistles.

You just need to consider three things:

  • Your baby's age
  • Your baby's weight and height
  • Whether the car seat meets safety standards

Here's a quick guide from the CDC on how to choose a seat based on your child's age, weight, and height:

Birth to 2. Use a rear-facing seat. Your child's weight should be no higher than allowed on the seat's weight limit.

Age 2 to 4 AND no more than 40 pounds. Use a forward-facing child safety seat.

Age 4 to 8 OR up to 4 feet 9 inches tall. Use a belt-positioning booster seat. Always keep kids in the back seat.

After age 8 AND/OR 4 feet 9 inches tall. Seat belts (without a booster seat) are OK. But your child should keep using a booster seat until adult seat belts fit properly. How can you know? Check the position of the lap belt and the shoulder belt on your child. The lap belt should be on the upper thighs -- not the stomach. The shoulder belt should be on the chest -- not the neck.

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The CDC says all children younger than age 13 should ride in the back seat. That holds true if they're in a car seat, booster seat, or seat belt. The reason: air bags can hurt or even kill young children riding in the front.

Experts recommend keeping babies under 2 in a rear-facing seat until they outgrow the car seat manufacturer's height and weight limit. A rear-facing car seat will protect your baby's delicate neck during a crash. A seat's weight limits correspond to the seat itself. Some seats can go up to 60+ pounds.

Every state has different laws on children's car seats. Some states will fine you $100 or more for failing to secure your child in the correct child seat.

Evaluating Car Seat Quality

You know which type of car seat you need, but what about the brand and model? Here are a few features to look for:

Safety label. Make sure the seat has a label stating that it meets or exceeds Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213.

Five-point harness. It will protect your baby better than a three-point harness or seatbelt.

Ratings. Check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) five-star ease of use ratings system. A seat that's earned four or five stars will have clear instructions and be easy to use.

New car seat. It's always better to buy a car seat new. If you do have to buy a used seat, search on the NHTSA's web site to make sure it hasn't been recalled. Also, call the manufacturer to check that the seat is still safe. DON'T use any used seat that:

  • is obviously worn
  • has loose or torn parts
  • has been in an accident

Car Seat Installation Tips

Now that you've got your car seat, it's time to install the seat in your car. It's important that the car seat is secured properly.

Even if the safety seat looks secure, it may not be. Three out of four parents are driving around with improperly installed child seats. And that's dangerous for their children.

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Here's a step-by-step guide to installing a rear-facing or convertible car seat:

  1. Read BOTH the car seat manufacturer's installation instructions and your car's owner's manual instructions completely. Make sure you know how to use the seat belts or LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system with your car seat before you start the installation process.
  2. ONLY install the car seat in the back seat. That's where your child is safest until he or she turns 13 or reaches a height of 4 feet 9 inches.
  3. Follow the car seat's instructions exactly as you thread the seat belt through the car seat belt path and tighten it.
  4. Buckle and lock the seat belt.
  5. Press down on the seat firmly to tighten it. The car seat should not move more than 1 inch from side to side or forward and backward once it's installed.
  6. Check the car seat manufacturer's instructions to make sure the safety seat is reclined at the correct angle.

Also check that your child is secured properly in the seat:

  • The harness straps should be placed through the slots at or below your baby's shoulders.
  • The straps should lie flat against your child's body.
  • You can tell that the harness is snug enough when you can't pinch any extra material at the shoulders.
  • The chest clip should be at your child's armpit level.

Don't stress out over car seat installation. If you've been wrestling with the seat for hours and you still can't figure it out, visit an NHTSA car seat inspection station in your area. Often, they're located at fire stations. A certified technician will show you how to properly install and use your car seat -- often for free.

To minimize the risk that a child will accidentally be left behind in a car or get trapped inside:

  • Leave a purse, briefcase, or cell phone in the back seat. That way, you get in the habit of checking in the back seat before leaving the vehicle.
  • Make an arrangement with your child’s daycare to have them call you if the child doesn’t show up as expected.
  • Always lock your car and car trunk, even if the car is parked in the driveway at home, and always keep keys and fobs out of the reach of little ones.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on July 28, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Child Passenger Safety: Fact Sheet."

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: "Car Seat Recommendations for Children," "Ease of Use Ratings."

Nemours Foundation: "Auto Safety."

Safercar.gov: "The Right Fit - Car Seat Installation."

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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